'I don't think it's going well': Turks see little upside to country's military involvement in Syria

Turkey's recent military operations in Syria highlight the tightrope Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is walking between East and West — and especially between his NATO partners and Russia, writes Margaret Evans.

Nearly 60 Turkish soldiers have been killed in fighting in Syria since January

Many Turks are skeptical of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's insistence that the country continue to be militarily involved in the Syrian conflict. (Turkish Presidential Press Office via Reuters)

A large billboard that towers above one of the freeways sluicing across the vast and majestic city of Istanbul carries the name of Turkey's latest military operation in Syria and asks the Turkish people a single question:

"Who would not sacrifice their life for this paradise of a country?" 

That's a line from Turkey's national anthem and a not-so-subtle pull on patriotic heartstrings for a country still reeling from the loss of so many soldiers to fighting next door in Syria.

Few Turks would miss the deliberate link between an anthem originally dedicated to "Turkey's heroic army" and an active military operation today that is causing increased domestic anxiety.

"That's how it's being marketed," said political analyst Soli Ozel, talking about Operation Spring Shield, which was launched on March 1 after at least 36 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike at the end of February that has been attributed to Russian planes backing Syrian forces.

"Who buys? I certainly wouldn't buy that."

Those deaths bring the number of Turkish soldiers killed in fighting since January to about 60. For a nation whose identity is intrinsically tied to the military through its founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, these losses are a psychological blow.

"It is our pride," said 22-year-old student Hussein Bildek when asked about the military. "We are a soldier nation. I can't [explain] that in English, but it's in our blood. I believe that."

'You see the situation here'

Turkey has spent the past three months building up thousands of troops in Syria's Idlib province, in a bid to halt the Syrian army's brutal advance on the last rebel enclave in a civil war now entering its 10th year.

That advance has driven an estimated one million people from their homes and right up next to the Turkish border since December. Turkey is already hosting nearly four million Syrian refugees and fears it will be forced to take in even more. 

Hussein Bildek, a 22-year-old student, said that Turkey is 'a soldier nation. I can't [explain] that in English, but it's in our blood.' (CBC)

For Hussein Bildek, that was reason enough for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to send more troops into Syria.

"We had to," Bildek said. "Because we have four million refugees from Syria and you see the situation here. We have a really bad economy right now, and have to fix it somehow."

But the operations in Idlib leading up to and including Operation Spring Shield brought Turkey into almost direct military confrontation with Russia.

Turkey has been backing Syrian rebels opposed to Bashar al Assad's regime in Damascus while Russian support for al-Assad turned the tide of the war in his favour. Despite a subsequent ceasefire, few believe it will hold.

Events have highlighted the tightrope Erdogan is walking between East and West, and especially between his NATO partners and Russia.

"Whether you acknowledge it or not, you had a fight with Russia in Syria," said Ozel, addressing Erdogan. "You're calling for your [NATO] partners to send you Patriot missiles. Well, so much for the advisability of the [Russian-made] S-400 purchase and all the rest."

Dealing with surge of refugees

It all contributes to what Ozel believes is a drop in support for Turkey's military presence in Idlib, especially compared to an operation last fall when Turkey angered its NATO partners by taking on Syrian Kurds, who many Western nations considered allies in the battle against the Islamic State.

"The thing is, in the previous Turkish military operations [in Syria], whether in the west or in the south or in the east, there was an element of fighting the PKK," said Ozel, referring to the Kurdistan Workers Party. "And that justifies anything."

The separatist PKK has fought a long and bloody guerrilla war inside Turkey, and Ankara accuses Kurdish forces in northern Syria of helping them.

This funeral tent was erected in Istanbul to commemorate a Turkish soldier killed in Syria. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Turkey suspended social media for 16 hours after the late-February airstrike on its soldiers in a move critics say was aimed at quelling domestic debate over the cost of Turkey's war in Syria, human or otherwise.

An Amnesty International report last fall described Turkey as the world's largest jailor of journalists, many imprisoned after a failed coup against Erdogan in 2016. 

Ozel said it's uncommon to see media coverage of families mourning the loss of Turkish soldiers killed on duty. "We don't see the stories of those families who are shattered by the loss of their son. There was one instance I think a father said, 'Stop the killing of our soldiers.'"

Turkey changed its conscription laws last year making it possible for those who could afford it to buy their way out of a six-month mandatory service.

Eighteen-year-old Rojin Yilmaz, a Turkish citizen of Kurdish heritage, expressed the internal conflicts many Turks seem to feel about their country's place in the world today. 

"I don't think it's going well. Every day, we are watching or reading on the news that we are losing a soldier," she said.

"It was a wrong decision to accept [the Syrian refugees] inside Turkey. Because after that, things started going bad. Something changed in our country after their arrival."

'We are stuck between two worlds'

Last month, Erdogan opened a new chapter of hostility with Turkey's former foe and current NATO partner Greece by opening up his northern border with Greece and inviting refugees in the country to leave for Europe.

Eighteen-year-old Rojin Yilmaz, a Turkish citizen of Kurdish heritage, said, 'Every day, we are watching or reading on the news that we are losing a soldier.' (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

This led to unruly scenes on the border, with Turkish police ferrying migrants to crossings and Greece using aggressive means to turn them back while accusing Erdogan of weaponizing the needy. 

Ankara argued the EU had failed to deliver on parts of its 2016 agreement to stem the tide of mainly Syrian refugees through Greece in exchange for financial aid and other incentives.

The standoff led to a video conference this week between Erdogan and his French, German and British counterparts, where progress on a revision of the 2016 plan was on the table ahead of an EU summit planned for March 26.

Analysts believe one thing Ankara has in its favour is that NATO and the European Union appear to need Turkey as much as Russia does. But it does little to ease the feelings of many Turks who believe their country's place in the world is little understood and one of perpetual isolation. 

"There is Russia. There is USA. There are other European countries, so there are a lot of players," said Bildek, the student.  "We are stuck between two worlds. Between West and East."


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.